Co-op links young, independent Jewish professionals

Every weekday, Roni Ben-David wakes up, turns on her laptop and gets to work. And while she emails and makes phone calls, she is more than likely sipping coffee in her San Francisco apartment in her pajamas.

Ben-David works for the Arava Institute, an environmental program in Israel that brings together Jews and Arabs to cooperate on environmental projects. She works from home as the only representative of the Israeli organization in North America.

The Bay Area is the natural place for her to be because of its progressive outlook. But at the same time, she said, she could do the job from anywhere, because all it really requires is a laptop and a cell phone. Or maybe not.

Ben-David is a member of the Jewish Professionals Co-op, a new project of the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, which links up people who otherwise lead fairly solitary professional lives.

“Professional development is so key when you’re working alone, because you don’t have a mentor, and you have so much to learn. There is also the energy that comes from bouncing ideas off of others, and the enthusiasm that they bring, whether we’re doing the same work or not.”

The co-op was the brainchild of Toby Rubin, one of the BJE’s associate directors, who slowly began taking note of the somewhat erratic but noticeable trickle of young, mostly female, Jewish professionals who were making appointments to see her, seeking her advice.

“I work with a lot of young professionals in the Jewish community,” Rubin said. “And I began hearing about some who had friends who were starting new organizations or had gotten jobs being the local office of a larger organization and were looking for some support and or mentoring.”

Rubin already facilitates a network of young professionals who work with Jewish teens.

As these dynamic young women kept coming to meet Rubin, an idea began to form. Rubin had taken an interest in how to Jewishly engage young adults, and this got her thinking further.

“We’ve got to get these people together,” she thought.

Rubin shared her idea with Stephanie Rapp, a program officer at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. She pitched the idea as a sort of incubator for young Jewish professionals, not unlike the Joshua Venture, which shut down due to funding issues but offered support to young Jews with innovative ideas.

The two women did some research and got some funding for the first year.

While Rubin was tempted to lead the group herself, “My job description was falling off the page already.” So she found a professional in Maya Bernstein, who has taken on the part-time position.

The group consists of a wide array of organizations like JGate (a pluralistic Jewish outreach group), the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, and the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, which opened its first regional office in the Bay Area.

Rabbi Margie Jacobs, formerly of Richmond’s Temple Beth Hillel, is now heading the institute here. She says the co-op has been a huge help in establishing her in the Jewish professional world. “Those in a position to create communities also need for themselves supportive learning communities in order to do their work,” said Jacobs. “I learn from others doing similar work, and also feel more connected, less isolated.”

David Monblatt serves as director of education for the Jewish Partisans Education Foundation, which seeks to draw attention to the Jews who fought back during the Holocaust. He, too, finds the co-op “incredibly valuable,” adding, “We have access now to this amazing network of resources, human and educational.”

For those launching new organizations, the co-op has proven to be useful as well. Rabbi Bridget Wynn started JGate to address a need she perceived in the local Jewish community.

“I’ve been highly aware of people wanting to connect,” she said, “but the federations, synagogues and JCCs just don’t work for them. I wanted a space that would feel welcoming. At JGate we offer events that are easy places to connect with Jewish life: Shabbat dinners, classes, salons on Judaism and social justice issues.”

To help build the organization, Wynn turned to the co-op. “In many ways it helps us network throughout the year,” she said. “I’ve met a few people who started new organizations. I talk to them and get advice about creating a new organization from the ground up in the Jewish community. I also have a consultant to help me with business plan.”

While the co-op group is just getting started, its very existence makes people like Ben-David feel more connected in her job.

“All of us have had some meaningful Jewish experience and are looking to give back to our communities and share that with others, that’s why we’re in it,” said Ben-David.

In the future, Ben-David said one thing she would like to see happen is a spiritual component to the group, perhaps some sort of Jewish learning.

“I need these positive Jewish experiences to keep me going,” she said. “And to have this community that is building, with Jewish learning and activities with other Jewish professionals, is part of that.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."